By Andrew Astleford
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Before each fight, Brian Stann walks into the cage knowing that whatever happens, nothing will compare to the hell he survived in Iraq.
He won't hear the cruel cadence of machine-gun fire, and his heart won't thump at the thought of makeshift bombs exploding alongside dusty roads. He won't stare into a moonlit desert sky and ponder what he might have done differently to spare his men from injury.
He won't lose sight of victory, his ultimate goal.
"It's the reason why I'm a successful fighter," Stann said. "Combat is a more complex environment than fighting. Mentally, the reason I win fights is because I can simplify a fight and not overcomplicate it. I don't walk into that cage full of fear. I've been through war already. It makes fighting much, much easier."
Stann retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in May as a captain after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. While on active duty, he became the face of World Extreme Cagefighting, a brand of mixed martial arts very similar to, and owned by, the same parent company as Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Stann, the WEC light heavyweight champion, is undefeated in his six professional fights and has used his emerging prominence to inspire servicemen and women while attracting attention for an organization seeking to gain popularity within the increasingly crowded mixed martial arts world. On Sunday, Stann will defend his title in a rematch against Steve Cantwell, whom he defeated in 41 seconds in March 2007.
Stann knows he will succeed, because he has adapted throughout his life.
His interest in professional fighting blossomed in junior high school. At a young age, he became interested in boxing and kickboxing, and he wanted to learn an aggressive style of martial arts. However, there weren't gyms in his boyhood home town of Scranton, Pa., that gave him the opportunity; kung fu was his only option, and soon he became bored.
Instead, he concentrated on football. As a quarterback, he set school records at Scranton Prep for career passing and rushing yards. His ability caught the attention of then-Navy coach Paul Johnson and, in 1999, Stann enrolled in the academy. The Midshipmen didn't have space available at quarterback, so Stann became a middle linebacker and, before he graduated in 2003, he helped Navy beat rival Army three times.
"You grow a lot," Stann said of his time in Annapolis. "As you grow, and you get closer to your senior year, you start realizing what you're headed for upon graduation, the leadership role that you're taking on. By the time you graduate, you're much more mature."
He knows he will succeed, because he has survived war.
For six days in May 2005, insurgents in Iraq ambushed Stann, a first lieutenant at the time, and the Marines under his command in the 2nd Mobile Assault Platoon. Stann and his unit attempted to seize a bridge near Karabilah and walked into an enemy's trap.
Grenades, suicide vehicles, and mortar and sniper fire peppered Stann from the periphery. With the situation spiraling out of control, he ordered air and tank support to neutralize the threat. Seven kilometers to the south, fellow lieutenant and friend Gary Hess held his breath.
"You always hope for the best and you expect the worst," Hess said.
"Every day you listen to that radio, and you don't want to show any type of weakness around your men or show your men that you're worried. When I didn't hear him on the radio, and I knew that they were in a tough fight; that was always going through my mind."
With time, air and ground support dissolved the insurgents' organization. All 42 of Stann's men survived, with nine suffering injuries. Because of his valor under fire, Stann was awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest honor for remarkable displays of courage on the battlefield.
"The thing that was going through my mind at that time was to continue to make the best decisions I could to keep my men safe and to accomplish the mission," Stann said. "As an officer, that's always your first concern.
"I don't think I ever had any doubts. I mean, yeah, there was certainly tons of adversity and a lot of chaos, but through all the things, I think we developed a genuine trust in each other."
Stann knows he will succeed, because he has constructed his fighting career from nothing.
Before starting his service, he had fought as an amateur but wanted to earn income for his passion. As Stann's first tour neared completion in the fall of 2005, he began researching professional MMA organizations. He flooded various groups' inboxes with pitches, telling them, "Hey, if I can fight for my country, trust me, whether I win or lose in a cage, I'm going to fight hard."
SportFight, an independent company founded in 2003, gave him his first chance. In January 2006, he won his initial match in 3 minutes 14 seconds. Intrigued by Stann's potential, WEC, which has the same rules as UFC but uses a smaller cage and focuses on the lighter weight classes, became interested and booked him to a one-fight deal to be held that June.
Stann made a lasting impression. He beat Miguel Cosio with a 16-second technical knockout, setting a record for the shortest fight in WEC's seven-year history.
"We were amazed, and we come to find out that he has this incredible story line," said Peter Dropick, WEC vice president of operations and production. "Then meeting him in person, he's just an incredible guy."
Stann knows he will succeed, because he has a story that sells.
In him, WEC officials have found a transcendent figure. They envision his military background enticing curious eyes from a spectrum of media markets and demographics. Versus, the network that has broadcast WEC events since June 2007, has filmed Stann for Memorial Day promotions, and commentators inevitably mention his story when he fights.
"With any sport, you're always looking for what makes this guy interesting to the fans," Dropick said. "You look at every sport, and they're always grabbing that angle of what happens outside the cage or off the field.
"It's important, especially with our sport, because it's a very new sport. . . . We're still educating the casual fan what mixed martial arts is all about and getting them to realize that it's a real sport, that it's safe, that it's not barbaric. To have someone like Brian really helps."
Stann knows he will succeed, because when he walks into the cage, everything will be perfect. He knows he alone will be responsible for his impending victory or defeat.
Sport, nothing more, defines his current existence. No matter the result, he finds peace in the realization that tomorrow will come.
"I'm not scared of getting beat," Stann said. "I'm not scared of getting hurt. I'm not going to lose legs. I'm not going to lose any limbs. I'm not going to have to call one of my guy's parents and let them know that their son is dead. It's obviously much easier. That's why it's a sport. War is obviously very real. At the end of a fight, the worst thing getting hurt is my pride. Nobody is going to die."